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Losing the GPS and Finding History: A Detour through the White Mountains

A trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire offers the things you might expect: scenic mountain vistas, serpentine rivers, and epic journeys on the historic Cog railway. However, it’s the things you don’t necessarily expect which rest firmly in your mind long after you’ve driven away – the sudden detours, the hidden destinations, the spots less prominent on the tourist maps.

When I made the trip into the region of and surrounding the White Mountain National Forest for the first time this July, I had a picture in mind, one that was quickly abandoned in favor of something much richer.

© 2015 Joey Phoenix Photography
© 2015 Joey Phoenix Photography

Traffic crawled across the New Hampshire border on 1-93. The sun baked the cars while warming exposed skin through windows. The drivers creeped forward, heading to their chosen destinations. Many were headed to campgrounds where the weekend would be spent boating, fishing, hiking, canoeing, and whatever else struck their fancy. We were among the throng, our unadorned vehicle oddly out of place among the cars strapped with bikes and kayaks, and the RV’s filled with restless children and determined parents.

We were driving into the White Mountains, to a Bed and Breakfast in sleepy Jefferson, where my boyfriend Kevin and I planned to spend the weekend exploring, observing, and dreaming.

Past Concord on 1-93, traffic began to thin and we picked up speed. Rolling down the windows in our 16 year old Subaru Legacy, we took in the scent of warm balsam along the roadside as we sped past. The sky was a decadent blue over the Granite State.

Suddenly, just past exit 20, we were jolted by the sound of scraping and thrashing on the front passenger’s side of the vehicle. Fearing a flat, we pulled over abruptly to check for damage. With cars whooshing past at alarming speeds, we investigated the front wheel, only to discover that the wheel was fine, but something else had dislodged. One of the plastic bits meant to protect the tire had torn loose, and was now dangling beneath the body of the car like a renegade sail. It would have to come off.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have a saw, scissors, or tape. A quick inventory of the trunk provided a length of rope, which was interesting, but ultimately useless in this situation.

While we were searching, a car pulled up in front of us and a young man with cigarette in hand hopped out. His hat was cocked to the side and his shoelaces undone. He looked to be about 21 or 22. His name, he said, was Justin.

“Are you guys ok?” He asked. A genuine Samaritan.

“Yes, we are,” we quickly responded, “but you wouldn’t happen to have a knife or pair of scissors on you would you?”

He took a drag of his cigarette and thought for a moment. “I’m not sure, but I can check.” And with that he hopped over back to his car and rifled through the back seat. Meanwhile, Kevin was trying desperately to prop the piece back into position.

Justin came back empty handed. “No luck?” Kevin asked. Justin shook his head no. We inquired as to whether or not he knew of a store nearby.

“Yes!” He exclaimed. “A couple of miles up the road take exit 22, head towards Franklin – I’m not sure which way – and you’ll find a little country store. Good luck!” We thanked him and he left.

Fortunately, Justin’s directions were sound, and a few minutes later we were pulling into the Irving Gas Station between 1-93 and Franklin off of exit 22. Inside we found a young female cashier alone, who had a pair of scissors she said we could use. Kevin made quick work of the hanging plastic piece, clipping it off a bit haphazardly, and tying the remaining elements together with the rope we had found in the trunk. We had hoped the store would sell duct tape – it didn’t. The cashier had even gone out to her car to see if she had her own stash of tape, which she didn’t. So, having no alternative, we trusted that the rope would hold until we could find a hardware store.

On the way back to the interstate we stumbled across an Aubuchon Hardware in Tilton, where we were able to pick up supplies. In MacGyver-esque style, Kevin used the ingredients to mix up a solution to our problem, and in less than five minutes, we were back underway.

From Tilton through White Mountain National Forest, the views are breathtaking. The road narrowed to one lane as we passed under the shadow of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch. Speed limits dropped to compensate for the many bends in the road, and perhaps also to allow the drivers to gawk at the impressive landscape.

The sun was beginning its descent as we exited the outer limits of the National Forest, the mountains receding behind us as vast meadows spread before us. Farms and rural homesteads dotted the horizon, a patchwork of reds and browns against the hazy greens of the surrounding fields.

Eventually, we found our way onto Route 2, Presidential Highway, and to the Jefferson Inn Bed and Breakfast. The broad yellow building, complete with wraparound porch, candy apple red lining, and a turret on the south end of the structure, appeared like a dream on the horizon. The entire visage seemed cozy and inviting, a welcome sign after some five hours in the car.

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We parked in the small lot adjacent to the building, between the inn and the farm house behind it, and entered at the door marked “office.” The foyer was decorated simply, comprised of a counter for guests to sign in, a wall containing a bookshelf filled with Jefferson Inn memorabilia and pamphlets, and a sign over one of the doors which read “Enter as strangers, leave as friends.”

As we were looking around for someone to check us in, we noticed a man running up the path towards us, undoubtedly the innkeeper. We apologized for our lateness, and he shrugged it off. He introduced himself as Eric and welcomed us warmly to the Inn, before going over the list of administrative tidbits and information and giving us the tour of the property.

The Jefferson Inn, founded in 2005 by innkeepers Eric and Gwen Higgins, is a Victorian farmhouse (built in 1896) that is the perfect juxtaposition of White Mountain country charm and historic flair. Each of the 11 rooms contain unique period antiques with their own distinctive style. Additionally, each room has its own private bath, an important feature.

Our room, the Monticello Room, was situated on the southern side of the house, directly beneath the turret. The space is dominated by an antique solid mahogany four post bed, covered with a white quilt with cobalt blue patterns – reminiscent of Dutch delftware. The other furnishings included a rustic Colonial wardrobe, bedside tables and larger sitting table, and two forest green Edwardian high back chairs. The entire appearance evoked a historic allure that was warm and pleasing.

Since we hadn’t stopped to eat on our journey, we asked Eric where he suggested we go. He informed us that choices in the area were limited, and directed us to the coffee table in one of the inn's sitting rooms, where there was a binder containing menus for restaurants in the area. The options were JL Sullivans – an Irish pub in Lancaster, Scorpios – a bar and pizzeria also in Lancaster, and the Restaurant at the Inn at Whitefield. After some deliberation, we elected to go to Scorpio’s, which turned out to be a fairly standard pizza joint, catering predominantly to the area’s many bikers, with friendly waitresses and decent, albeit greasy, fare.

The next morning, we woke up relatively early for the Inn’s famous “homemade country breakfast” included with the accommodations. The sun-filled breakfast room overlooks the Inn’s back lawn, where goats and ponies frolic in white-fenced paddocks, and free range hens roam at will. The innkeeper, Gwen, brought us a substantial breakfast of eggs, potatoes, fruit, and toast with three different varieties of homemade jam – bacon and sausage were also available but we passed on the opportunity. We sat and ate and watched chickens through the window as they searched for grass-dwelling insects and wandered about.

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In the reception area of the Inn I had picked up a pamphlet advertising Lancaster’s weekly farmer’s market. Seeing that Lancaster was just ten minutes away, and we hadn’t anywhere to be until later, we decided it would be the perfect way to spend the morning.

We pulled into one of the parking lots along Lancaster’s Central street, the location of the town’s small business center, and began to walk towards Centennial Park. Seeing a number of tents surrounding a small green, we assumed this was the location until closer inspection revealed it to be nothing more than a small church – St. Paul’s Church specifically – jumble sale. Each of the booths were manned by eager ladies attempting to raise money for the church through sale of used housewares, bric-a brac, arts and crafts, and handcrafted wooden furniture. We browsed, stopping to admire the cornucopia of unusual items before heading on to our intended destination.

Centennial Park, which stands adjacent to Weeks Memorial Library, is the town’s central green. 25-30 tents stood at the perimeter of the grassy square, surrounding a central pavilion where a duo of musicians – Nate Alberts and Linny Kenney – were playing. We slowly made our way through the market, stopping at enticing stalls and chatting with vendors. There wasn’t an abundance of farm stands, as the market leaned towards craft fair, including several wood and leather workers, purveyors of stained glass, and jewelers. The youngest crafter at the fair, a 14 year old entrepreneur and the owner of "Willow Bee’s Earing’s and Things" (this is the way she had spelled it), was selling an assortment of handmade jewelry comprised of seashells and ornate beads, as well as her own concoctions of lip balm. Another young artist, Matt Crafton of Art of the Norse, was selling posters, bookmarks, and original art prints depicting creatures of fantasy.

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Weeks Memorial Library, constructed in 1906,sits Adjacent to Centennial Park, retains many of its original furnishings. A sign sticking up from the grass outside stated that there was a “free book sale” on the bottom floor, and we took a moment to investigate. The basement of the building was filled with shelves and tables brimming with books. It had been heavily picked over, but a printed out sign on the wall read “All books in this room are free for the taking.”

I found myself thumbing through the remaining biographies, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Napoleon Bonaparte, and many other international figures were among the offerings. Although I hadn’t realized it, we weren’t alone in the room. When I glanced up for a moment, I saw an elderly man looking smart in a blue button down shirt and khakis also making his way through the stacks. Suddenly, he let out a small “yip” of excitement, and pulled a copy of Stephen Fry's autobiography "The Fry Chronicles" off the shelf. He looked at me with the biggest grin on his face.

“It’s amazing what you’ll find in places like this.” I offered.

“It really is.” He beamed. Then returned to his search.

From the library, we stopped into New to You Consignments and Israel River Antiques. Both stores packed wall to wall with well-loved items, the aisles so narrow that you had to step carefully as not to knock anything from its place. While wading through, I overheard the purveyor talking to one of the patrons, a local woman with a large English bulldog. They were discussing places to eat in the area, lamenting how the residents of Lancaster had few options. “There’s really only two places that are worthwhile,” he expressed, “the new Polish bakery next door, which has the best bread I’ve ever tasted, and Water Wheel Diner.” The woman nodded in agreement. I made a mental note to check out both places.

Since the bakery, called Polish Princess Bakery, was next door, we popped into the lively space which was brimming with locals enjoying Saturday morning baked goods and coffee, and talking in small groups. We ordered one of the baguettes and a coffee to go. Over the counter we could see the bakers, elbow deep in flour, kneading bread and chattering merrily. A blackboard along the wall listed the specials as well as the breads of the day.

Though not the best baguette, it was dense and crusty on the outside, and soft and light on the inside. The texture and flavor were delicious, and that was all that really mattered.

From there we said farewell to Lancaster and headed off in the direction of Bretton Woods, the site of the historic Omni Mt. Washington Hotel and Resort. We had originally planned to stay at the resort, but decided that time spent in a B&B would be more engaging, a decision that turned out to be the right one. Taking Route 302 south into White Mountain National Forest, and passing the entrance to the Cog Railway service road on the left, we navigated to the gates of the Resort.

The resort is set back quite a ways from the highway, and is initially blocked by a grove of trees, but once you turn onto the property the structure becomes impossible to miss. The gleaming red roof atop the ivory building stood on the horizon like a castle on a cloud. It was a perfect day, with cotton candy clouds floating in sea of blue sky.

We parked and strolled inside. Originally built in 1902 by New Hampshire native Joseph Stickney, the Omni Mount Washington Resort, originally called the Mount Washington Hotel, has often been compared to a “steam liner on land.” The resort offers an all-inclusive guest experience complete with hundreds of rooms, five distinct dining areas, a luxurious outdoor pool overlooking the mountains, red clay tennis courts, golf courses, access to the area’s best wintertime recreation, and more.

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It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the resort, however. In the latter half of the 20th century the structure changed hands several times, and at many points its future seemed uncertain. Fortunately, in 1986, the U.S. Department of the Interior formally recognized the resort as a National Historic Landmark. The title was enough to motivate a group of New Hampshire businessmen to purchase the building with plans to rejuvenate it completely. Since then, Bretton Woods has undergone $50 million worth of refurbishment, and now is in the best shape it has been since its glory days.

After a brief tour of the grounds, including a promenade along the immense porch which wraps around the entire structure, we decided to carry on with our journey. A quick search of local attractions showed us a site known as Six Gun City, which we quickly input into our GPS and then headed back towards Jefferson.

Satellite services in mountainous areas are lackluster. So, instead of leading us to our planned destination, the GPS directed us to Water Wheel Breakfast and Gift Shop. Figuring grabbing lunch wouldn’t hurt, we decided to go in. It was around an hour before the restaurant was to close, and everyone in the place turned to look at us when we entered. The dining room was nearly full, there were only a handful of empty tables, but we quickly sat down and waited for the server.

When the busboy came to bring us water and silverware, we asked him if he had ever heard of Six Gun City. He laughed and said that it used to be a major attraction, but he didn’t know if it was still open. He mentioned that it was just five minutes away if we wanted to “check it out for ourselves.”

Water Wheel is a country style breakfast and lunch restaurant serving American style home cooking. The menu was full of what you would expect, biscuits and gravy, country fried steak, full American breakfasts and fry ups. I ordered soup and Kevin ordered grilled cheese, which elicited confusion from our server who asked us, “Are you sure you don’t want anything else?” We were sure. “How about pie?” She suggested. “No thank you.” We expressed.

Taking the busboy’s word for it, we headed up Route 2 towards where he said Six Gun City was supposed to be, and before long we arrived. A row of Western style building facades, like something out of an old Spaghetti Western. There were eight or nine cars parked outside, a sign that it was open, so we parked and went in to see what it was all about.

The entrance led through the gift shop, a dimly lit store stocked with western souvenir paraphernalia. Many of the items looked like they hadn’t been touched in decades. Along the wall there was a “make your own souvenir stuffed animal” station, where a large plastic container was spinning stuffed animal fluff like a tumble dryer at a laundromat. After taking a moment to process what we were seeing, we asked the young woman behind the counter, she couldn’t have been more than 16, what exactly this place was.

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“It used to be a theme park,” she explained, “but that’s all been shut down now. They’re turning a lot of it into campground, but we still have rides.”

$12.95 granted us access to all the rides – laser tag, bumper boats, paddle boats, a water slide, and go-karts. She gave us wristbands once we paid, and we entered the park. The inside was as eerie as the outside. An entire village of western stylized structures labeled with titles like “trading post,” “wagon house,” and “shooting range” stood before us, more than half blocked off by orange construction mesh.

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We followed the access path along the small village, stopping by defunct stables and rotting carriages until we reached the rides. Young children in bathing suits sprinted by us, heading for the water slides and bumper boats. We walked straight to the go-karts, which turned out to be an exciting way to spend twenty minutes, despite the condition of the karts themselves.

Founded in 1956 by James and Eleanor Brady, Six Gun City was one of the Presidential Mountain Range’s leading attractions in its hey day. Modeled after an mid-19th century western pioneer town, the park was a multi-ride amusement center and western theatrical showcase. Since the passing of James Brady in 2007, the site, now called Fort Jefferson Fun Park, has fallen from glory. Although it has reopened some of its attractions, it’s doubtful that it will reach its former glory.

A trip to the White Mountains without a ride on the Cog railway would be a shame, and indeed, that was to be the final stop on our tour. Unlike Six Gun City, whose brightest days seem far behind it, the Cog is an attraction that will continue to wow visitors for many decades to come. There’s no doubt about that.

While riding up those ancient rails, the tour guide giving a jaunty speech that still seemed fresh and new despite the thousands of times he’s spoken those very same words, a thought came to me. The Cog, regardless of its age and international renown, may not always be a fixture on Mt. Washington. One can only hope that day after day and year after year it will continue to ascend and descend that magnificent mountain, and people from all over the world will continue to stand in line for a chance to experience its wonders.

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When people think of the White Mountains region, they think of Mt. Washington, the Presidential Range, Bretton Woods, and the Cog. They probably too think of the Old Man in the Mountain and Six Gun City, fixtures that seemed eternal but now are little more than memory. Yet, despite what has happened to these glorious places, or what has yet to happen, they are all part of New Hampshire’s vibrant heritage. They are its Library at Alexandria, its 1897 World’s Exhibition, or its Chimney Rock. They will always be remembered, and held tightly in the hearts of New Englanders forever.

Yet, you can never fully know what fate has in store for a region. On the way down Mt. Washington the tour guide pointed out scars on mountains across the way, the result of mudslides and avalanches. “It can take decades for them to return to the way they were,” he explained, “some never do.”

It was a privilege to have been there in that moment, to stand triumphantly atop that glorious mountain, and to be brought down safely by the same railway that 19th century tourists had ridden – a shared experience across time. Although New Hampshire may not look the same that it has in the previous decades, it still holds more excitement and wonder than you can fit into a single weekend, or possibly even a lifetime.

Although, a weekend is a pretty good place to start.

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© 2015 Joey Phoenix, INC.